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Germinal; or, The Toll of Labor (1913)

Germinal (original title)
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Cast

Credited cast:
Mévisto ...
Maheu
Jean Jacquinet ...
Chaval (as Jacquinet)
...
Etienne Lautier (as Henri Krauss)
...
Catherine (as Mme. Sylvie)
Paul Escoffier ...
Dharsay ...
Souvarine
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Léon Bernard
Albert Bras ...
Hennebeau
Paul Capellani
...
la Maheude
...
Cécile Hennebeau
Marc Gérard ...
Bonnemort
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Plot Keywords:

mining | coal | based on novel | See All (3) »

Genres:

Drama

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Release Date:

February 1914 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Germinal; or, The Toll of Labor  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

wonderful pioneer film of European cinema
24 February 2017 | by (France) – See all my reviews

For decades the understanding of silent film was based on the knowledge of such a tiny quantity of films (there were perhaps a quarter of million, even possibly half a million films made in the period) that it resulted in a completely deformed and totally US-centric conception of film history. One of the victims of that general ignorance was Albert Capellani and it was not until the recent enormous revival of interest in silent films (and people are often perhaps not aware of how recent it is) that Capellani's reputation as a film pioneer has been re-established. In the course of a major retrospe3ctive in the 2000s (that is how recent it is), it was at last possible to see what a major figure he was. One French critic described him as "the missing link" between the Lumières and Jean Renoir. I would personally seem him more in a lineage that stretched from the Lumières to André Antoine and thence to Jean Vigo. But, whichever way you look at it, it is a vital staging-point along the main highway of the European cinematic tradition.

All the comments here reflect the old discredited cinema-history of fifty years ago. A "primitive film", "uninterestng", "not imbued with cinematic quality" etc etc. The European tradition represented a quite different set of values from those that came to dominate the US tradition. Its intellectual influences derived one the one hand from naturalism (to the fore in this film) and on the other from various non-realistic movements (futurism, expressionism, surrealism). Although they sound like opposites, the various elements could in fact co-exist.

The US "realistic" tradition (nothing to do of course with "real life") was a self-limiting form that excluded both naturalism and the non-realistic modes. Its emphasis was on continuity, suspense, action, glamour, star-quality. The European tradition emphasised context, mise en scène, juxtaposition related to meaning rather than continuity. What is sometimes described (with pejorative implications) by critics as "the tableau style" (primitive, uninteresting, uncinematic etc) would be better described as a contextual style. It was not some sort of error or old-fashioned hangover; it was a choice, a mode that gave the viewer agency choice rather than continually directing the intention by editing and lighting techniques that deliberately annihilated context.

Capellani was responsible from 1908 onwards for the Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres (SCAGL) which was Pathé's response to the "art film" movement that had developed in the early 1900s. Although he directed films in a variety of genres, he was particularly strongly influenced by the works of Zola and the "naturalist" movement, so amongst his films of the period there is both a short (Le Chemineau) and a full-length film (1912) based on Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which might be described as a literary precursor of naturalism and two films, the short L'Assommoir and this full-length film of 1913 based on the work of Zola. When he left France for the US in 1915, Capellani handed over to André Antoine, the friend of Zola, pioneer of the naturalistic theatre and originator of the expression "mise en scène" to describe the work of a theatre producer or film director.

This is a stunning film, a beautifully limpid re-telling of Zola's story in a deliberately semi-documentary style. The term "documentary" had not yet been coined but look at the crowd scenes where characters look at the camera, a style associated with non-fiction films (unintentionally in some of the very first films but by this time always deliberately). Just as Zola had himself spent time in the mines researching his novel, so here Capellani films on location in the Pas de Calais using actual miners as the extras. It is a film that could only be uninteresting for somebody who has never learned to watch a film without the camera telling him or her where to look.....

The version I have seen (and it may be all that exists)was an abbreviated one - about 70 minutes (the original ran for two hours and was, at the time, perhaps the longest film ever made). The version I saw had no intertitles (and, very remarkably, needed none). It was entirely intelligible from beginning to end. It would be good to have had the longer version but, even as it stands, the film is excellent.

It is actually quite interesting to compare this film with the 1993 version (the 1963 Yves Allégret version is of little interest) by Claude Berri. Berri, although the subject of his films could not be more French, is the most uneuropean of directors stylistically. His films are a rigidly "realist" as any Hollywood production. Yet he is a fine director and his Germinal is a well-made film and generally well performed (even if the casting of the singer Renaud is something of an error). Capellani could not have made such a film in 1913 but (beware of condescending assumptions), neither Berri nor anyone else could have made this film in 1993. The aesthetic is different. Berri's effort is a very stolid well-made film but Capellani's pioneering feature film is a cinematic poem.

The following year, Pastrone's Cabiria (in a quite different mode) would appear and from that point on, as Martin Scorsese quite rightly points out, the path of cinema is firmly set......


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